Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a long-lasting disease that affects your central nervous system. If you have it, you're more likely to also have certain other medical conditions, including depression, high blood pressure, and lung disease. Doctors call this "comorbidity."
Sometimes these comorbidities can delay your MS diagnosis. Some may cause your MS to progress faster. And they can make managing your MS more complicated.
You're more likely to get some of these disorders because of MS's effects on your central nervous system. Scientists aren't sure why others are more likely when you have MS. Some are linked to health habits you can change, like smoking, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise.
Always tell your doctor about any symptoms you have. And talk to them before making major changes in your lifestyle.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are among the most common morbidities of MS. Depression affects nearly 24% of people with MS, and anxiety almost 22%.
Reasons for this include:
- The damage MS does to your nervous and immune systems can affect your behavior and emotions.
- The emotional effects of dealing with a long-lasting illness might trigger depression or anxiety.
- Depression is a side effect of some MS medications.
- Fatigue from MS could affect your emotional health.
To help avoid these effects, stick to your MS treatment program. If you feel anxious or down for a couple of weeks, talk to your doctor about treatment to manage your mental health. Exercise may help improve your mood too.
High Blood Pressure
One recent study found high blood pressure (hypertension) is 25% more common among people with MS than others. It affects 17% to 30% of those with MS.
Lack of physical activity is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure. And some research has found that people with MS sit for approximately 7.5 hours a day. If it's not treated, hypertension can lead to health problems like heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
Healthier habits can help you manage high blood pressure. To start, reduce salt in your diet and add more fruits and vegetables. Make time for daily exercise, and limit alcohol.
When you have high cholesterol (also called hyperlipidemia), your blood contains too much fat. This can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries. In people with MS, high cholesterol is linked to brain injury and faster progression of the disease. It can also make your fatigue worse.
Ask your doctor about medications and lifestyle changes to control the condition. Some steps you can take:
- Quit smoking (or at least cut back).
- Exercise regularly.
- Ask your doctor about the best ways to lose weight.
- Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins.
- Avoid or limit red meat and foods with lots of added sugar or salt.
Some 10% of people with MS also have chronic lung disease, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Even if you don't have lung disease, you may have breathing issues related to MS. Just as the condition can weaken muscles in your legs and arms, it can affect the chest and abdominal muscles that help you breathe.
If you have trouble breathing, tell your doctor. They can prescribe treatments for lung disease, and recommend breathing techniques and exercises to help keep your lungs healthy. If you smoke, they can help you find ways to quit.
Many people with MS have gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as constipation, trouble controlling bowel movements, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). That's because your central nervous system helps to control your digestive system.
Other common problems include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Indigestion (dyspepsia)
Talk to your doctor about the best way to get your GI issues under control. Lifestyle changes can help with some of them:
- Eat more fiber (from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) to help with constipation.
- Eat smaller meals to avoid heartburn.
- Get more exercise.
- Take over-the-counter diarrhea medications.
- Take antacids for acid reflux.
Vision problems are often among the first symptoms of MS, and result from its effects on your nerves. But MS-related eye problems rarely result in permanent blindness.
Some of the more common conditions linked to MS include:
- Optic neuritis, when your optic nerve gets inflamed. It can cause pain, blurred vision, and loss of color vision. It often affects just one eye. Vision usually returns after some time.
- Nystagmus, an involuntary movement of your eye side to side or up and down. It's sometimes called "dancing eyes." There aren't many treatments for this condition. It may come and go, or last a long time.
- Double vision, when you see two images side by side or on top of one another. This happens when the nerve responsible for your eye movement gets inflamed. It can be a signal that your MS has relapsed.
Medications can help with MS vision problems. Tell your doctor if you notice changes in your vision.
Other Autoimmune Diseases
Multiple sclerosis is considered an autoimmune disease. That's one in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues.
If you have MS, you’re more likely to also have another autoimmune disease. Some research indicates that around 30% of people with MS develop one. The most common ones include:
Ask your doctor about treatments and lifestyle changes that can help you manage these conditions.
You have osteoporosis when your bones lose density, or mass, and break more easily. Some people with MS are at higher risk of osteoporosis because they get less bone-strengthening exercise. This is especially true if you use a wheelchair. Some MS medications, like corticosteroids, can lower bone density as well.
Ask your doctor about bone-density screenings, calcium supplements, exercise, and medications to keep your bones healthy.
Vascular and Cerebrovascular Diseases
Vascular diseases affect your vascular system, the network of blood vessels in your body. They include heart disease and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Ischemic heart disease. If you have MS, studies suggest you're at higher risk of developing a vascular condition like ischemic heart disease. That's a condition in which narrowed arteries reduce the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart muscles.
We need more research on vascular disease and MS. But if you have MS, it’s especially important to avoid the risk factors for vascular disease by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Cerebrovascular diseases. These are diseases, like stroke and aneurysms, that specifically affect the blood flow to your brain. Some research has linked MS to a higher risk of cerebrovascular disease.
Scientists aren't sure yet what the connection might be. But an unhealthy diet, too much alcohol, and cigarette smoking can increase your chances of stroke. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk for cerebrovascular diseases.
Bladder and Kidney (Renal) Problems
More than half of people with MS have bladder problems. You may have to pee often or be unable to control your bladder.
This happens when MS affects the nerves that control parts of your urinary system. It can lead to frequent urinary tract infections or kidney stones. It could also affect the health of your kidneys over time.
Your doctor can prescribe medications and other treatments to help with urinary tract problems. You can also try:
- Limiting liquids at night (but make sure you drink enough during the day)
- Exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor
- Bladder training, in which you try to gradually increase the time between trips to the bathroom